Arrow is on a strong roll this season, producing a lot of very good episodes of television and a handful of great ones. That being said, “The Promise” takes things to the next level and may be the best episode this series has yet to produce. I mentioned in my review of last week’s episode “Time of Death” that the show has settled into a “formulaic structure” (not a bad thing, necessarily, particularly considering the way this structure is cleverly inter-playing between the two timelines) and I also noted that “everything now seems to be coming to a head.” That is indeed the case, and in fact “The Promise” just goes to show how cleverly Arrow has used its double timeline structure this season. In the first season the island flashbacks served to fill in missing pieces of a mystery and show us how Oliver Queen slowly evolved from boy to man. In season 2 the flashbacks have set the stage for an all out war in present day Starling City, with Mr. Slade Wilson (Manu Bennett) as the commander of the evil opposing army.
“Time of Death” ended with Oliver finding Slade Wilson in his living room, meeting with Moira Queen. Although we pick up directly from that moment, a good majority of “The Promise” (more so than normal) is devoted to the island flashback timeline. Oliver, Sara, and Slade devise a crazy plan to infiltrate Dr. Ivo’s freighter, and what unfolds is a chaotic and incredibly effective series of events that run that gamut from prison riot/battle on the freighter to an emotional climax that has been brewing since “Three Ghosts.” That episode not only featured the tragic scene where Oliver chose Sara over Shado, resulting in Shado’s death at the hands of Ivo, but also the reveal that Slade Wilson is in present day Starling City controlling Sebastian Blood and much of the turmoil that has been plaguing the city, the Queen family, and Arrow. It only fits that now not only is Oliver aware of Slade’s presence (and actions) in Starling but in the flashbacks Slade becomes aware that Oliver chose Sara over Shado. Regardless of the fact that Ivo pulled the trigger, Slade believes that Oliver is responsible for Shado’s death and their entire infiltration plan is rendered useless. Whether fueled by the Mira Kuru or his own rage and love, Slade decides to take things into his own hands. Sara is able to free many of the prisoners (including a newly introduced preacher and Oliver’s Russian friend) and they are able to make it off the boat and back onto the island. Oliver isn’t so lucky. Slade Wilson kills the boat’s captain, cuts off Ivo’s hand, imprisons Oliver, and takes control of the freighter. Slade Wilson may have begun as Oliver’s friend (his “brother,” even) but now he is an enemy. Oftentimes the best villains are ones that come from a place of understanding and emotion (the reveal that Ivo was searching for the Mira Kuru to cure his ailing wife, for example) and thus Slade is already proving to be a terrific villain. The scenes on the island are tense, the action is beautifully executed, and it is all thematically resonant. Color me impressed.
I mentioned that in the season 1 island flashbacks we saw Oliver turn from boy to man. In this very episode, as depicted in the image above, we see Oliver turn from man to Arrow for the very first time. Opening scenes of the episode depict Oliver’s training regimen and increased acumen with a bow and arrow (a quip about a breeze is terrific), and it is a magical and inspiring moment to see Oliver don the quiver and place the hood on his head for the first time. The hood serves to respect and honor both Shado and Yao Fei, fallen warriors who came before him and showed Oliver the way. As an odd mirror image, Slade wears the Deathstroke mask for the first time in a while just as Oliver embraces the hood. As it so often goes in superhero fiction the masks and costumes that heroes and villains wear are a vital part of their ritual and identity.
In the past on Arrow when the island scenes took the forefront the present timeline often seemed useless or unnecessary. Not so with “The Promise.” Interspersed with the flashbacks is an incredibly tense and thoughtfully portrayed game of subtle cat and mouse between Oliver and Slade as the Queen family gives Mr. Wilson a tour of the art throughout their mansion. The tension and irony can be cut with a knife as both Stephen Ammell and Manu Bennett (never better) find new nuances in their portrayals. Both men know what being in each other’s presence in this house means but neither will say it. Slade made Oliver a promise and now, years later, he is here to collect on that debt. Slade wants Oliver to feel the same pain and torture he did over losing Shado, and there is no better way than to threaten Oliver’s family. Slade is taunting Oliver by charming Moira and Thea it is a devilish plot indeed. This would all be good enough but then Oliver quietly calls Felicity so she can hear what’s going on, and in a great scene Sara hears Slade’s voice and immediately knows what it means. As quick as can be Felicity, Sara, Diggle, and Roy (there he is!) team up to go help their pal Oliver.
This is a brilliant occurrence that made me practically giddy. In the past Oliver has exhibited trust issues, kept his identity secret, and only let people in when utterly necessary. He controlled the cards and was often the one who had to save the day. Now Oliver is trapped not by a gun or a knife or a poison but by circumstance, and the loyal team he has assembled comes to his rescue. Roy is first; he approaches through the front and upon shaking Slade’s hand they become aware of each other’s Mira Kuru inflicted abilities. Sara is next; Slade seems both surprised and delighted to see her, and the looks they give each other carry great weight. Diggle is carefully placed outside with a rifle, but somehow Slade is one step ahead of Oliver and his man is able to take Diggle out before he can fire the gun. And so it goes. The villain is ahead of the hero, using his tour of the Queen house as a way to place surveillance cameras throughout. Through his one good eye (seeing Slade’s bad eye without an eye patch is a horrifying effect) Slade watches and all of the drama and emotions of the past and the present linger in the air. We are approaching the home stretch now, and I cannot wait to see both the all out war that is sure to occur in Starling City but also the missing pieces on the island that continue to fill in the tale of Oliver and Slade. Malcolm Merlyn was a tough act to follow as a season long arch nemesis, but the unexpectedly terrific arc of Slade Wilson is certainly fitting the bill.